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With Voters, actions speak louder than words

Preston Manning, Globe and Mail – August 21, 2009

Are political parties actually committed to all those planks in


their election platforms? They should prove it

As Canada's federal political parties look forward to the next general


election, two major problems confront them all: the declining interest of
Canadians in elections and the declining willingness of the average voter to
believe anything a party or candidate says or promises.

Both of these problems are part of the “democracy deficit,” but what can the
parties do to address and reduce it?

In Britain, the Conservative Party recently experimented with an “open


primary” in the constituency of Totnes. All registered voters in the riding –
not just card-carrying party members – were invited to help choose the Tory
candidate for the riding by way of a mail ballot.

Twenty-five per cent of the electorate participated, more than 16,500 voters
– far more than would normally attend a closed party-members-only
nomination meeting. It is yet to be seen whether this will increase voter
participation in the next election, but at least the voters of Totnes will not be
able to say they had no opportunity to determine whose name got on the
ballot.

The British Conservatives' willingness to experiment with democratic


innovations does not stop with open primaries. Another experiment is aimed
at raising the “believability” of the party's platform and election promises.

Like most national political parties, the Tories have a section in their party
platform labelled International Development. In it, they profess their
commitment to assisting “people around the world living in poverty” and
promise “to help those struggling with hunger, illiteracy and environmental
instability.”

Fine words, like most of the words in party platforms. But why should any
voter believe them, given the track record of so many parties, leaders and
candidates in failing to live up to their commitments and promises?

To address this credibility gap, the Conservatives are experimenting with


what might be called Party Platform Projects. These are actual “projects,”
involving party members and funds raised by them, to visibly demonstrate in
practical ways their commitment to some important plank in their platform.

To bolster the credibility of the commitment to international development,


International Development critic Andrew Mitchell is leading a group of about
100 Conservative volunteers (including doctors, teachers, lawyers and
business people) to Rwanda to engage in grassroots development work in
that troubled country. The undertaking, in its third year of operation, is
named Project Umubano and is now being expanded to Sierra Leone and
other countries.

Predictably, cynics and critics have panned the project as “partisan


showmanship” and have raised a host of objections: What good will such a
small effort achieve? Why not just give the money to an existing non-
governmental organization? Et cetera.

Nevertheless, the project has already demonstrated the potential to attract


interest from people, especially young people, who might otherwise remain
unengaged in the political or development process.

It remains to be seen whether this technique will increase the believability of


the Conservative platform among the electorate and the party's ability to
attract the involvement of disengaged voters. But the experiment bears
watching, and should encourage similar experimentation in Canada.

Suppose, for example, that the election platform of the Conservative Party of
Canada contains commitments to provide more support to the families of
Canadian military personnel. As a governing party, it is already in a position
to direct more public support to such families and has done so. But one
wonders if the overall credibility of the party's commitment in this area might
be further enhanced if just one of its numerous fundraising letters was
dedicated to soliciting contributions to the Military Families Fund initiated by
General Rick Hillier.

Or suppose that the platform of a party, as the Conservatives' 2008 election


platform did, contains a commitment to reduce the number and quantity of
toxic chemicals available to Canadians – chemicals often contained in
household products and sitting unused but potentially dangerous in kitchens,
bathrooms and garages.

Again, one wonders if the overall credibility of that party's commitments in


this area would be strengthened if it appealed to its own membership base to
volunteer for just one weekend to assist some environmental NGO or agency
in a door-to-door campaign to remove such chemicals from circulation.

Party Platform Projects need not be grandiose, can even be initiated at the
constituency level and should not be “oversold” if they are to be credible.

Democracy in Canada would be enhanced if all our political parties were to


identify and carry out several projects in connection with commitments
contained in their election platforms. In politics, as in life, actions speak
louder than words.